Shudder’s newest original film, The Beach House (directed by Jeffrey A. Brown) is a summertime horror film which follows a college-age couple – Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros) – as they visit Randall’s father’s beach house on a romantic weekend getaway, hoping to reconnect and mend their relationship. Unexpected guests appear, and Emily and Randall find themselves sharing the house with an older couple. Trouble appears in the night, and they are pitted against a grisly force of nature.
Summertime horror is a complex blend of atmosphere, where the setting and themes are juxtaposed against one another – summertime, for many, is equated with the jovial release of the regimented days of everyday life. Vacations, whether from school or to a destination, are often full of good cheer and the foundation of friendships, relationships, and lifelong memories. To overcome the cheery atmosphere, summertime horror often trades the ambiguous for the blatant, trading the darkness of autumn for harsh sunlight and the beach, with most of the tension coming from the ocean. Summertime horror excels as it takes these destinations and laces fear into the anticipation, effectively upending the excitement of visiting an unknown place and replacing it with fear and uncertainty.
The Beach House toes this line of atmosphere well.A looming sense of dread permeates the stunning scenic shots; the ocean churns ominously from the shore; the sandy dunes of the beach are curiously empty; the sunlight harsh. To those who have been to the beach on vacation, these images should conjure memories of merriment and cheer, but the emptiness of the beach and the film’s thrumming score manage to subvert the usual association of these locales and creates an odd anxiety.
There is a moment which derails the film, a clichéd (and, ultimately, boring) “let’s get high” scene that takes up precious screen time. This works to disorient the characters, but this could have been done equally well via the suspicious, ooze-like tap water that comes out of the house’s pipes. This troublesome scene is juxtaposed by the sinister segments that follow, but it still feels out of place and annoying.
Conversely, the film does a great job at creating anxiety about the water, which may be summertime horror’s greatest strength. What should give life becomes ominous and menacing. Both the tap water and saltwater are compromised, creating a paradox of longing and repulsion – what the characters need most is a drink of water, yet the water is the film’s most terrifying aspect. It is this use of water as both sustainer of life and murderous force that creates such an effective sense of horror. Creating horror of the mundane is the film’s greatest strength.
The Beach House is a film which proudly shows its influences. An amalgam of The Thing (1982), The Mist (2007), Night of the Living Dead (1968), Jaws (1975), and The Fog (1980), it is, as its influences, a commentary on social anxieties facing the new generation: of college, of the crumbling economy, of, most notably, climate change. We are left to deal with these issues with no direction, no lifeline. We are on our own, helpless against the forces of the Earth which try to reclaim us, despite (and, in a way, due to) the existing societal structure that we find ourselves navigating, unfamiliar with the landscape.
The film can be seen allegorically in this way. A college woman finds herself struggling to survive in an alien environment, where the landscape, while already pre-built by those who came before, is daunting and horrific rather than accessible, the looming unknown a savage and crippling force when it is manifested in unfamiliar homes, monsters, and, constantly, the toxic plumes of fog which cannot be escaped, despite our struggle.
Overall, the film is an enjoyable, churning mess of ideas, where cinematography, practical effects, and the brilliant Liana Liberato all coalesce into what could be something phenomenal but are hindered by the script, supporting characters, and the weight of its premise. This is not to say it is a bad film; waves of brilliance crash against the shore, but retreat and reveal murky sand. Still, it is a compelling, atmospheric summertime horror – with plenty of gut-turning moments – which you would do well to experience.